This year will be different, but we'll always have 2008

On Election Night 2012, the typical will replace the magical.

As for the "fresh and progressive new light" Obama's election cast on Chicago?

The Chicago that the media broadcast to the world lately is one that, for all its glories, is still shadowed by struggling schools, political scoundrels and young people killing young people in impoverished, mostly black, neighborhoods. In other words, a city that looks a lot like it did before the election of Chicago's own.

That's not to say that Chicago and Obama no longer matter to each other. Not as much, but they do.

Go to Valois, the Hyde Park cafeteria-style restaurant Obama used to frequent, and you can find plenty of Obama enthusiasts ordering from the giant poster labeled "President Obama's Favorites."

Go to the Hyde Park Hair Salon, where Obama used to get his hair cut, and you'll find an Obama sticker on the window, plus barbers who still proclaim him a guy from the neighborhood. On Thursday, when I stopped by, you also would have found a Swiss television crew, seeking the Chicago angle.

Go to Europe and say you're from Chicago, and you're likely to encounter strangers who instead of replying "Al Capone!" now say "Obama!" and usually as a compliment.

At the White House, the president remains surrounded by Chicago aides. At Chicago City Hall, one of those former aides is now the mayor.

And Obama's presidency has introduced the term "the Chicago Way" into the national vocabulary; it is often inappropriately applied and never a compliment.

No one should be surprised that the magic of Grant Park four years ago has given way to more complicated moods. Magic, like all forms of romance, is not built to last.

Walking away from the park that night, I passed some college-age students, who had probably voted for the first time, making fun of Obama's rival.

"John McCain!" one cackled. "You're old! You're a loser!"

That arrogance stuck with me as vividly as the evening's more uplifting scenes. I wanted to say:

Dude! You're young! You think this is how politics works? You pick a candidate, you vote, you win and the world changes? Wait. You'll learn that change rarely happens fast. That even winning politicians surrender something vital to survive.

And that almost nothing is as exciting the second time around.

Election Day 2012, whoever wins, will be very different from Election Day 2008, in Chicago and elsewhere.

But it's important to remember this: Something extraordinary did happen four years ago.

A country with a racist past elected a dark-skinned president who lives in a city with its share of racial shame.

That election didn't change the city or the country as much as some people hoped. It changed things in ways other people deplore.

Either way, it left a valuable mark.

The other day I visited a Chicago public grade school where almost all the students are black. On the wall was a big picture of President Obama next to words like "Has kinky hair," "Has brown skin," "Lives in Chicago."

The overarching caption beside the photo was something that was barely imaginable until that night in Grant Park:

"Just Like Me."

That's part of what happened in Chicago four years ago. Since that night, a black kid in Chicago can look at the president and think, "Just like me."¿

That will always matter, no matter what happens next, and no matter how much those newspapers fade.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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